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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Government hide behind lawyers in freedom of information row

As somebody who has just submitted a freedom of information request, albeit to the Welsh Government, it is concerning to see how the greater transparency offered by the FOI Act is now being challenged by Ministers and civil servants.

The Independent reports that government departments have spent at least half a million pounds since 2016 trying to block the release of information under transparency laws, with lawyers working for six government ministries challenging rulings by the Information Commissioner and leaving taxpayers to foot the legal bill:

The biggest spender on lawyers was the Department of Health and Social Care which racked up legal bills of more than £129,000 fighting a single case to try to stop the release of ministerial diaries.

The same department also spent £20,000 trying to stop journalists from obtaining information about fire safety in hospitals, as well as £87,000 preventing the release of drafts of a policy document about childhood obesity.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government also spent £38,950 trying to block the release of ministerial diaries to another journalist, while the Department for Work and Pensions spent over £80,000 defending three appeals agains the information Commissioner.

Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of investigative outfit openDemocracy which conducted the investigation in the legal bills said: “At a time when the public are concerned about government secrecy it is deeply ironic that government departments are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money to hide information from the public. Ministers need to stop using public money to hide from public scrutiny.”

Last year it was revealed in official figures that free access to government information has plunged to record levels under Boris Johnson's premiership.

Civil servants in the orbit of Downing Street are increasingly failing to respond to freedom of information requests in line with their obligations – with the Cabinet Office the worst performing.

The Cabinet Office now answers just 64 per cent of freedom of information requests on time, down from 85 per cent in 2019. As recently as 2017 it was answering 95 per cent of requests.

The government has also been caught advising public bodies on how to circumvent freedom of information regulations.

So much for the open, accountable government on which our democracy is founded.
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